The past week has seen the legal profession and human rights activists lobby furiously against the Victorian Government’s proposed pandemic powers, which have already passed the lower house.
For example, the Victorian Bar – the professional association of barristers – claims the new pandemic laws which would grant the Andrews Government “unlimited, unreviewable power” that “authorises extreme limitations of basic liberties of all Victorians and confers enormous powers on the executive”.
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Tens-of-thousands of Victorians also peacefully protested against the bill in Melbourne’s CBD over the weekend.
The Victorian government has agreed to some compromises to get its controversial pandemic laws through parliament’s upper house.
Amongst other things, the government has removed a clause which would have allowed targeted pandemic orders to be made based on specific attributes, such as a person’s religion or political affiliation. There will also be increased parliamentary oversight of pandemic orders and lower financial penalties for breaching such orders:
The changes don’t address all of the concerns of legal experts and civil liberty groups, who’ve slammed the powers as a dangerous overreach, along with the opposition, which will make the laws a key election issue…
The suite of changes is not expected to secure the support of the entire crossbench, with further amendments to be moved, including blocking a pandemic from being declared unless the disease was actually in Victoria, and stricter time limits for how long a pandemic order can last…
As well as lawyers and civil liberty groups Victoria’s peak business groups urged revision of the Bill. A joint statement by the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group said serious issues with the proposed laws needed to be worked through…
The Greens’ Samantha Ratnam, Animal Justice Party’s Andy Meddic, and Reason Party leader Fiona Patten have all flagged support for the Bill…
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has vowed to repeal the laws if elected to government.
The proposed laws are still too heavy handed, according to Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass:
Ms Glass says under the bill, Victorians could still be detained indefinitely without charge, with no right of appeal to a court.
“I think that this bill is an improvement in in a number of areas, including transparency, but what I’m very conscious of is that while my office has been able to review detention orders – and we did this, for example, last year in the public housing towers lockdown, we’re doing it at the moment looking at border exemptions – I will no longer be able to do that under this legislation because the decision-making will move from the chief health officer to the premier or minister for health, and I don’t review decisions by ministers,” Ms Glass told 3AW.
The Ombudsman said the decisions would instead be reviewed by the government-controlled Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.
“There is a role for parliamentary committees, certainly a role for the scrutiny committee, but it’s not enough in my view, and I think concerns have been rightly expressed right around the legal community, in relation to the need for a greater level of independent oversight.
Asked whether the amendments had gone far enough, Ms Glass said: “No, not in my view.”
She said the amendments had not addressed the need for a proper complaints mechanism.
“I’ve also said that I think there need to be proper provisions around standards for people in detention,” Ms Glass said…
“And the other provision that I I’ve suggested to the government is there should be a sunset clause on this legislation of 18 months.
There is also the question mark of why such laws are necessary given Victoria is nearing its 90% full vaccination target?
Still, the watering down, however slight, is a welcome development. Be grateful for small mercies.
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